The logic made sense, and the execution was even better.
The Detroit Lions defied conventional wisdom by not having a quarterback on their roster at this weekend’s just completed rookie minicamp, but first-year head coach Dan Campbell said he was able to accomplish everything he had in mind despite his team’s unusual roster makeup.
“We didn’t feel like we were going to do traditional practices where you’re doing an actual team,” Campbell said. “With that, why waste one of those spots on somebody that we knew wasn’t going to be here? We would rather use one of those spots and let’s bring in a tight end, let’s bring in a defensive back, let’s bring in a corner. Let’s get eyes on somebody we think can make this roster.”
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Typically, NFL teams field a full roster of position players at rookie minicamp that includes drafted players and undrafted rookies, first-year eligible players based on service time, and dozens of invited tryout players.
This year, the NFL limited teams to a maximum of five tryout players because of the coronavirus pandemic.
With no eligible quarterbacks on their 90-man roster, and with no undrafted free agents or non-roster invitees who they felt would compete with Jared Goff, Tim Boyle and David Blough for roster spots, the Lions instead used a trio of coaches to simulate quarterback play during camp.
Quarterbacks coach Mark Brunell, a 19-year NFL veteran, and receivers coach Antwaan Randle El, a college quarterback at Indiana who played receiver as a pro, threw passes during individual drills, and offensive assistant Tanner Engstrand, a college quarterback at San Diego, ran seven-on-seven drills at the end of Sunday’s practice.
“I would say this: There’s been a lot of ice,” Campbell said. “A lot of icing after practice. Been a lot of heat pre-practice. But we’re getting it done. They look pretty good.”
The Lions’ 32-man camp roster included six of their seven draft picks — first-round pick Penei Sewell did not participate after testing positive for COVID-19 — 13 undrafted free agents, eight first-year eligible players and tryout invites cornerback Alex Brown, tight end Charlie Taumoepeau, receiver A.J. Taylor and safeties Alijah Holder and Nick Pickett.
Taumoepeau and Holder signed with the Lions after camp.
Campbell said the Lions put a heavy emphasis on special teams play during camp, and along with quarterback they used coaches to simulate play at offensive tackle (DeOn’tae Pannell and Steve Oliver) and occasionally on the defensive line.
“It’s OK, because it’s basically a walk-through,” second-round pick Levi Onwuzurike said. “It’s hard because you’re not going to put your hands fully on a coach and push him back. That’s when everything from knowing your steps, knowing your technique kind of takes over.”
Engstrand ran the offense through a moderately-paced 20-minute walk-through at the start of practice Sunday, and the Lions had just one competitive period of semi-live action all weekend: The 7-on-7 drill at the end of practice.
While linemen competed on an adjacent field in a two-on-two game of medicine-ball tennis, where teams of two linemen had to throw a weighted ball back and forth over a makeshift net of garbage cans, Engstrand completed 6 of 9 passes with one interception (that bounced off receiver Jonathan Adams’ hands) in 10 plays.
He closed the period with well-placed touchdown pass to Javon McKinley on a corner route against Brown and at one point checked the ball down to running back Dedrick Mills on what appeared to be his third read.
“He actually surprised me,” third-round pick cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu said. “First when you see a coach out there you think you’re going to see some ducks, but no, he’s actually a really good quarterback so he actually gave us a good look.”
Fourth-round pick Amon-Ra St. Brown said he had not caught a pass from a coach in a competitive practice situation since Pop Warner football, but overall camp went off without a hitch.
“We’ve been able to do everything that we’ve wanted to do,” Campbell said. “We’ve gotten the work done, because really, the football, up until what you guys will see at the very end of practice, seven-on-seven, everything has been walk-through. The scheme side of it, offensively and defensively, has literally been walk-through. … So, no, we really haven’t been restricted whatsoever.”